The top-seeded Baylor Bears try to get off on the right foot when they take on the 16th-seeded Hartford Hawks in a South Region first-round game in the NCAA Tournament Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The Bears are considered one of the favorites to win the national title.
Baylor (22-2) is coming off a loss for only the second time this season, having fallen to Oklahoma State in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament. Baylor won the conference’s regular-season title with a 13-1 record.
The Bears have appeared in six of the last eight NCAA Tournaments, including a second-round appearance in 2019 that ended with a loss to Gonzaga. The Bears made the Elite Eight in 2010 and 2012 but haven’t been to the Final Four since 1950. March Madness odds have the Bears as +115 favorites to win the South region.
By contrast, this is Hartford’s first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The Hawks did make the Division II NCAA Tournament four times in the 1970s but had not participated in the Big Dance since moving up to Division I in 1985.
Hartford (15-8) finished fourth in the America East this season with an 8-6 record but upset second-seeded Vermont in the semifinals of the conference tournament before defeating sixth-seeded UMass Lowell for the championship. The Hawks come into this game on a five-game winning streak.
The winner of this game will take on the winner of the first-round matchup between No. 8 North Carolina and No. 9 Wisconsin in Sunday’s second round. When looking at the college basketball odds, Baylor is a 25½-point favorite in this one, with the over/under set at 140.
Baylor has dealt with a lot of COVID-19 troubles this season, with the Bears having 11 games either postponed or canceled. Despite that, coach Scott Drew’s team was near perfect, losing only to Kansas and Oklahoma State, two top-four seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
The Bears lead the nation in 3-point percentage, hitting 41.8% from beyond the arc. They are also third in scoring margin (plus-18.0) and scoring (84.4 points per game). Junior guard Jared Butler leads the offensive parade with 2.6 3-pointers per game on 42.9% shooting, 17.1 points and 4.8 assists per contest.
Senior guard MaCio Teague is just as dangerous, averaging 16.2 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. Junior guard Davion Mitchell chips in with 14.1 points and a team-high 5.4 assists per contest.
Baylor has multiple weapons on the outside, with six players shooting at least 39% from beyond the arc and averaging at least one 3-pointer per game: Mitchell, Butler, Teague, junior forward Matthew Mayer, sophomore guard Adam Flagler and freshman guard LJ Cryer.
While UMBC paved the way for all future No. 16 seeds with its upset of No. 1 Virginia in 2018, Hartford probably isn’t going to be repeating that feat in this one. The Hawks are, to borrow a cliche, just happy to be there, though they’ll certainly give their all until the final buzzer.
The guard combination of seniors Traci Carter and Austin Williams leads the charge for the Hawks. Williams is averaging 13.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, shooting 50.9% from the field.
Carter is averaging 11.8 points, 3.4 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 2.6 steals per game. He’ll have his hands full with the Baylor backcourt, but he’ll also make them work on both ends of the floor.
Hartford will try to slow the game down, as they hold opponents to just 63.3 points per game. The Hawks also only score 65.9 points per contest, so they don’t want to get into a track meet with the Bears.
The Bears have had almost a week to think about their loss in the Big 12 tournament, and they’ll be ready to go in this one. Baylor has had a national championship as its goal all season, and now is the time to really turn it on to get to that achievement.
Hartford has accomplished a lot this season as a program, but an NCAA Tournament win will not be one of those accomplishments. Look for Baylor to take control of this one early and easily win.
When making your college basketball picks, go with the top-seeded Bears to win and cover.